Belfast Telegraph

Airstrikes on their own will fail to stop Isis war machine

By Patrick Cockburn

Britain has joined a war against Islamic State (Isis) within a political framework that guarantees frustration if not failure. The House of Commons was rightly wary of another open-ended foreign intervention in Iraq, Syria or anywhere else.

But while MPs are conscious that Britain is entering a minefield, they were much less good at identifying where the mines are and what, if anything, can be done about them.

Take the current Isis offensive against the Kurdish enclave of Kobane in northern Syria, where 300,000 Kurds are squeezed into a smaller and smaller enclave as they battle better armed Isis fighters. Some 200,000 Syrian Kurds have already fled across the Turkish border.

Here, if anywhere, the US could have deployed its airpower to attack the advancing militants. It was US airstrikes that helped to save the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil in August.

Strangely, until the weekend, the US was using its airpower everywhere in Syria except Kobane. Why the American reticence? It appears to be motivated by a wish not to offend Turkey, which never cared for the semi-independent Kurdish cantons; its actions are strong evidence that Ankara can see the advantages of using Isis against the Kurds.

For all Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's statements at the UN in New York that he opposes Isis, the militants receive a degree of toleration from the Turkish State. It is not that the Turkish government is hand in glove with Isis, but that getting rid of President Bashar al-Assad as well as weakening the Kurds has been higher up Mr Erdogan's agenda.

The point to keep in mind here is that there are limits to what can be achieved by military means in this crisis. There is a role in Iraq and Syria for foreign airpower to act as a fire brigade to stop Isis from storming Erbil in August, or taking Kobane now. But go beyond this limited but important role and air strikes swiftly become counter-effective.

It all depends in whose interests in these multi-faceted civil wars that airpower is being employed. It is here that political ignorance or self-deception becomes so dangerous, such as that of Defence Secretary Michael Fallon declaring that we would be using British airstrikes in support of Iraq's newly formed inclusive and representative government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. This administration is apparently acceptable to Iraqi Sunni, unlike that of the violently sectarian Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The impression given by Mr Fallon is that if American, British or French airstrikes help to clear the way for the Kurdish Peshmerga or the Iraqi army, then they will be greeted with open arms by the Sunni of Mosul. Except that none of this is true. The new Iraqi government is much like the old and equally, if less overtly, sectarian.

What Britain should be doing in addition to sending the Tornadoes is to do everything possible to get negotiations going between the main outside players in the Iraq-Syria crisis.

These would include the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as inside players such as the Syrian government, Syrian Kurds and non-Isis opposition to Assad.

The only way to eliminate Isis long term is to look for a way of de-escalating the crisis so that local parties do not all feel that they are fighting for their lives.

Isis is essentially a war machine, and so long as the Syrian war goes on, it cannot be beaten.

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